Tell Me a Love Story

We sat on either side of our granddaughter, her rapt attention focused on the screen in the theater. We were watching the newest Cinderella and she was captured by the story she knows so well. 

Our children liked The Princess Bride. It held a different kind of charm but its characters were endearing. There was a bit more in questioning in this tale and more humor but they are among our family’s favorite love stories.

A friend of mine has one of those love stories. She was a history teacher in Georgia, USA leading her class on a tour in France. She took a fall and needed a doctor. She and the doctor communicated after she returned to the states and within a couple of years she moved to France and married him.

Hers is the most romantic story of people I know. It’s got the “made for movie” ingredients.

Sadly, after two children and twenty years of marriage it unraveled until it came completely apart.

I know other love stories of a different kind. They are stories of a Savior who loves us when we can’t even love ourselves.

We work and move among men living in a residential rehabilitation program.  It’s a free program run by an organization that would cause many to think it’s a homeless shelter. There are no private rooms and six showers to be shared by 100 men. There are rules. They live with curfews and restrictions, a dress code and requirements to see a counselor, attend meetings and participate in work therapy. 

It doesn’t sound much like love but it is a place where love is offered and sometimes love is found.

We know this because we see the change. We see it when they start to love themselves, when they recognize grace and when they accept that God loves them no matter what.

It’s a lot to believe for all of us.

This is the real love story. Not a sappy, happy all the time imitation of love but real love that hurts and resists but never gives up.

We are learning together, these men who share little in common with me but inside we are so much the same.

We’ve been hurt by what we thought was love. We’ve discovered love has more fakes than Rolex and we’ve been duped.  Duped by parents and boyfriends and spouses and friends.

We’ve bought the movie version and every shade of gray offered and found them empty and ourselves searching for more.

Eventually, we find the only love that matters is the kind described in 1 Corinthians 13  “Love puts up with anything and everything that comes along; it trusts, hopes, and endures no matter what.”

If genuine love can be found in a facility for addicts, alcoholics and those who’ve lost their way in life, if this love that’s born from compassion can be shown in simple acts of kindness and hospitality then maybe we can know love. Maybe we can understand it’s not about feelings but actions. That honest love wants nothing in return only to be accepted and shared.

This is my love story.

“My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.”1 John 4:7-10 Message

God’s Economy of Hope

Our audience is a group of 1st through 6th graders. They’ve asked us here to tell them about what we do. They’ve asked us how they can help. 


It’s been a while since my audience has been children though at times some of the adult groups I’ve spoken to have me wondering if there’s much difference. I’m not the main attraction. I was asked to come to share a little of the history of the Salvation Army. I think that mostly, I was asked to come for support. This is Lee’s first time speaking as one of our representatives. Usually he’s speaking in recovery meetings. Talking to kids about this is a first for him and I notice a hint of nerves. 


I go first. Talking in any setting has rarely been a problem for me. When the subject is the mission of The Salvation Army I’m at my best. I start by asking them if they know what we do. Hands go up and one little girl says, “You help people”. We’re off to a great start.  It’s apparent these children are sensitive to the plight of the homeless and hurting. 


When one little girl notices my uniform her mouth drops wide as she says, “a real soldier!”. Another asked, “do you fight for us?” This gave me the opportunity to tell them that we’re called the Salvation Army because our founder said we are fighting the war against sin. Yes, I told the girl, we’re fighting for you. But our weapon is love. This program that helps men battling substance abuse is an all out war as we fight with them and for them to live a life in recovery and attain the gifts that God has to offer – gifts of restored relationships and integrity. 


I introduce Lee and he starts by saying, “You know the people she was talking about? The homeless and addicts? That was me.” There is an audible gasp and the mouths of little ones literally drop open. 


He has their full attention as hands shoot up with questions. 


What kind of drugs did you take?All kinds


What was it like being homeless?It was lonely. Very lonely. 

What did they give you?They gave me hope


The children brought donations to help us help others. They brought clothes and shoes and items we can sell in our stores that fund our residential program. Things others no longer want are just what we need. Funny how that works, especially in God’s economy. 


In a week’s time we can visibly see the difference in a mans life. We’ve given him fresh clothes, good food, a safe place to sleep and a hot shower. These are outward signs. Lee reminds me that the most important thing we give anyone is hope. 


Here’s the thing, you can’t give hope if you don’t have it yourself. It’s another way God’s economy works. He is our hope and when we have Him we can give hope to others. It seems that’s just what our world needs most.

They’re Too Young

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He is young but they’re all young these days.

In his 30’s, he’s on his second stay with us to deal with his addiction. He is bright, articulate, a husband, biblically literate, and an addict. Last month, living separated from his wife in our residential rehab program, he learned his wife was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
Too young.
We prayed for her healing, for her well being and comfort. We prayed for him as he tries to manage more than what is enough to break anyone.
His wife is hospitalized for treatment that consists of 5 days of radiation to be followed by chemo. He is living in a rehabilitation center. She’s lost her hair, he says, but the radiation killed one of the spots. ONE of the spots.
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I see him working with some other guys unloading a truck. They finish and start playing a game of flipping one pencil into another to try to break it. It looks so ordinary except I know nothing is ordinary about this scene.
I ask for an update on his wife and he tells me like he would tell the forecast. He’s said it over and over giving updates and reports to friends, family, us. His words are calm and deliberate and after he’s told me of the radiation and chemo he looks me eye to eye and says “God is using this for good”.
I don’t know what to say so I pat his shoulder and smile. He is young to have such confident faith.
This man is too young to be in more than one rehab more than one time. He’s too young to face these trials. Too young to watch his wife suffer the ravages of cancer.
They are all too young to carry the heavy burdens of abandonment, criminal records, sexual abuse, addiction, mental health issues and more.
They are not too young to choose faith. To choose in a power greater than themselves to turn to with their fears and failures.
In all of his struggles Aiden* is choosing to believe. He’s believing in God’s perfect will over well-meaning quotes and hugs. He is choosing to see the positives in his wife. He is choosing God.

Two Tragedies

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There are two tragedies with addicts. There is the tragic life of the addict. A person whose life has unraveled and become a stranger to all who knew them. They have changed in every way.

Physically they have aged. Meth and crack destroy their teeth. Opioids take them to skin and bones. Eyes become pinpricks and eventually flatten out to blankness. Flakka can leave long-lasting paranoia and mental confusion.
The once good looking brother, son, husband so well-groomed and well-mannered is hiding things, stealing from family, lying about jobs and money until everyone has cut them off. Until the crack house is the only place that welcomes them and even that will end when they can’t pay. One way or another. The lucky ones are put in jail which can lead to detox giving them a chance.
The second tragedy happens to those who love them. Addicts are the real walking dead.
“Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? 
In short: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?”  
– Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society
These are the people who enter our lives and wreck our emotions forcing us to draw boundary lines and make hard decisions. They are why we’ve attended too many funerals and memorials. Their names are on my tears and they leave bruises on my heart.
*Tom has left. Again. When he came back this time he was thinner than the last time. He’s not a big man, only a couple of inches taller than me. But his eyes were alive before. Now they are desperate. He grabs me in a hug nearly every time he sees me and there’s something about it that isn’t him. The counselors have expressed his ongoing paranoia and I learn his last run involved Flakka. He has prescriptions but he’s decided the amounts he should be taking which completely violates our policy. We know his level of care has gone beyond what we can handle. We wish we had the power to Baker-act him. It would put him directly in the system to have a mental evaluation. It could give him a chance. But we don’t have that power. Before we can meet with him about options he leaves. He’s become sure he’s being targeted, a manifestation of his paranoia.
So he left. Walked out. To nothing. And I’m so afraid he’s going to die. Out there. Alone.
You’d think after 14 years in this ministry we’d become numb. There are many times I’ve wished for it and times I’ve felt it. There is a layer we must wrap ourselves in every day to be able to look at the night log to see if anyone has left. I can only explain our ability to still care by saying God is with us. I don’t know why we haven’t been destroyed by this except that He is with us. And right now I want him to also be with *Tom.
Two tragedies multiplied by every man in our Center.
“Dare to love and to be a real friend. The love you give and receive is a reality that will lead you closer and closer to God as well as those whom God has given you to love.” 
– Henri Nouwen

Playing Church

I may have told you this before, but some things bear repeating. They bear remembering more than the retelling.

During my 3rd and 4th grade years we lived across the driveway from our church. When I say our, I mean it was the church where daddy preached most Sundays and mama taught and they worked together in ministry. It was not just the ‘our’ church we attend but it was ours.

Our house was the parsonage separated from the church building by a driveway. We walked back and forth from the church offices and were as much a part of the ministry team as anyone.

The chapel was where I’d go at times, up on the platform and stand behind the pulpit. I’ll wave my hand like daddy directing the congregation to sing. I’d turn the songbook to Just As I Am because we sang that one all the time and I knew by memory where it was.

Then we were transferred and the church wasn’t next door and I got older spending more time with friends and listening to the radio. Only, when looking back, I realize part of me still played church.

Going week after week, Sundays and Wednesdays and special events, were as much habit and obligation as anything. It’s where my people were and it was a good place. We grew together and planted roots in God’s word. It felt like community.

Time went on and we entered full-time ministry. We became the ones, much like our parents, preaching and teaching on Sundays, planning events and training leaders. Church was our vocation and while it was a God-leading mission if you don’t pay attention, you will be playing church again.

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When there's no room left at the alter they come on the stage.

When there’s no room left at the altar they come on the stage.

You will stand before the congregation and wave your hands and sing the songs you sing every week. You will plan Advent and Holy Week and you will organize youth outings and summer day camps. And it will all be good. But you’ve forgotten church is more than a collection of parts.

We didn’t plan the change that woke me from my church induced trance of sameness. It was most unexpected. Who would ever think a bunch of guys who are required to attend an in-house Sunday service because they are part of this rehabilitation center, men whose last choice was to come to this residential program with dress codes and meeting requirements, would shake off my slumber?

The have and they do. Every week someone will teach me a new thing about grace. Someone will show me that God uses the least, the last and the lost. Every. Day.

Are you playing church? Sleep walking your way through? May the God who wakes the dead and gives life to dry bones renew our Spirit and make us alive in Him.

The prayers of strangers

It wasn’t the typical Sunday morning but I’m not quite sure what typical means some days. My sister was visiting and going with us to chapel service, her first in the recovery community.  Hudson was leaving town immediately following the service and before I walked out of our house I had a message from a friend in another town asking our men to pray for JW.

As I set up the computer for the media another message flashed across my screen: please pray for JR’s wife and then the needs of another not asking for prayer but I knew it was needed.

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Every week there are those sitting in silence, doubting prayer, wondering why theirs wasn’t answered or if they should even ask for prayer. We’ve all trivialized our problems because those of another sounds greater. We’ve sulked because we’re still waiting for the last 10 prayers to be answered and now we aren’t even sure we believe.

It stays in my mind, this woman of the faith who has never met one of the men she has asked to pray. She knows of their brokeness, of the reasons they’ve had to put humility aside and walk through our doors. She’s heard me tell the stories and these are the ones she wants to pray, for one they don’t know either.

My faith is shallow and impatient. It doesn’t wait long and its doubt comes quick. My faith reaches to people I know, I’ve seen their lives and heard their hearts and maybe, maybe, I’ll whisper my need to them.

I know these men and I know God and I know the broken are just the ones God uses to crash my arrogance and pride. I know he hears the hearts of those whose hearts beat for Him and nothing beats louder than a heart needing to be made new.

We prayed for the known and the unknown. Some are praying still. I don’t understand the mystery of prayer. I’m not too good at it, at least the way it seems it should be done. I hope I’m wrong about that. I hope I’m wrong that it needs to be always done on my knees in a quiet room with no distractions and no less than 10 minutes, preferably 15 minutes. Doesn’t that sound right?

You thank and praise, which seem the same to me but I heard someone say they’re different and you should include both in your prayers.

You admit and request and you wrap it all in gratitude and that I know it right because how can I not be grateful to the One who somehow holds it all.

Mostly I pray in spurts. In the moment as it comes to me like seeing a request on Facebook and sometimes I touch the screen and say a prayer. I know I’ll forget if I don’t say it just then.

I pray with my eyes open a lot because I’m driving or at my desk or someone comes to mind while I’m cooking. It always too little  but God isn’t the one measuring prayers by word count or eyes closed.

I don’t know why she asked a group of strangers, men with addiction problems, to pray for her friend. I do know God has heard their prayers. I know her faith in God is why she asked and not her faith in people. I know her faith has helped strengthen mine.

 

At the end of the day

Is this summer really busier than most or were slower summers just seen through hazy-want-it-to-be-so memories?

Summers when our kids were young seemed to stretch on with long days in the pool and road trip vacations out west. Then they started going to sleep-away-camps and working all summer at camp and summers got hotter and hurried to fit it all in.

Children add the pauses in life. Appreciated only with some perspective.

the granddaughter

the granddaughter’s recent visit

It has been a hurried July. Issues at work that can’t be resolved with simple decisions have stretched on, tethering us closer to home. The times we’ve enjoyed away haven’t been allowed to linger as we quickly put the photos aside to take up the next thing on the list.

The collision happened this week as it has before. The expected when working with people and disappointment more tragic when working with those getting their footing in recovery.

We throw some people right into the fire it seems. You get some traction in this recovery thing. You’re making all the right moves: sponsor, meetings, giving back, yep, you’re a stand-up guy. You’re hired.

It has to happen sometime this going back into the world, beyond our seemingly safe walls with counselors down the hall from you and recovery language spoken all around. Even here the addiction demon rages and pulls some down again.

80's night

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It was that kind of week. We’d been gone two days and back in time to put the finishing touches on our big 80’s night. Smack in the middle of summer where we knew we needed to laugh off the steam of the day. Back to a turmoil we didn’t know was brewing. Back to relapse that had us scrambling for replacements and action and grace.

I was home most of the day, with the granddaughter at the pool. Oblivious to anything amiss until the phone call not intended to inform me of the chaos others had been swept in. A simple question about the audio for the night and the simple statement, it’s been a busy day. “Good busy or bad busy?“, I asked. The new employee on the other end hesitated before he said bad busy followed by, “I don’t want to be the first to tell you.”

“Better get use to it“, I said and so it went from there.

The granddaughter still in the pool wanting me to come back in, safe from our grown-up world of disease and heartbreak.

Even the counselors get into the spirit of the night

Even the counselors get into the spirit of the night

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God knew. He knew when this would happen and that it would happen on the day we set aside to have a party. He knew at the end of confusion, uncertainty and frustration we would need to laugh. And we did.

A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance. Ecclesiastes 3:4

There are seldom more events that make us realize life goes on than relapse. One falls but 98 others must be held up, encouraged, shown a new way, a new life.

So we had our 80’s night with more of the younger ones embracing the costumes of a time before they were born. We laughed and cheered and booed when the judges didn’t score Pat high enough in karaoke. We danced with the counselors and wore silly things not in character for us. And in the process, some wounds were soothed.

At the end of the day, the fallen are cared for, taken to shelter and told they are loved.

At the end of the day grace. 

Five-Minute Friday {free}

Linking up with the gracious Kate Motaung, host of the weekly free-writing prompt known as Five-Minute Friday. Stop by and join this group of lovelies.

I’m a suspicious sort, tossing the junk mail with banners reading: CLAIM YOUR FREE PRIZE. Scan the fine print and you’ll discover the cost of free.

It pushes my buttons when someone, often a customer in one of our Family Stores complaining about a price with the rationale of, “you get this stuff free”.

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bible conference

bible conference

I have to practice calm when explaining, no, it’s not free to us. It costs us the price of trucks, employee salaries, gasoline…utilities in this very building your standing in…….(serenity now!)

Yeah, I have to take a deep breath over that one.

I like free, but rarely are things without cost.

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Oscar Roan

FtL prayer

Our 6-month rehabilitation program is free to the men. They receive counseling, food, clothes, purposeful duties, but it cost them something. It cost willingness to follow the rules, to get up at a certain time, to attend group meetings, to participate in their recovery. It costs them change.

For some that cost is too high.

Change carries a high price. No money is required to change but it’s a price many of us aren’t ready to pay.

Grace. Free. No cost. At all.

Paid for by Jesus. His life for us.

Grace because He loves.

Always.

Forever.

Free.

Shine

“In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.” ― Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child

God has this crazy way of bringing the most unusual things together, all pointing to Him and His grace. He uses people from different walks of life and different places in the world and none know the other but they are shining His light in my life.

For several years I’ve been watching men battling addiction, watching the painful journey of shining a light on their pasts. For some, the pasts was the deepest darkness ever known and addiction seemed the only escape. For others, the wreckage of their past was self-made. I’ve stood before them and assured them of God’s grace, of His love that is the only true light. I’ve talked about pasts they’d rather forget but needed to face and I’ve done this without facing my own.

Mine isn’t marred by drugs or the mis-use of pain medications. My past doesn’t look too different from most Americans: parents divorced, poor decisions in my teen-age years, times where I walked away from God’s best for me. They seem trivial in the face of what some of the men have been through. And that’s added to minimizing my wounds, my fears, my shame.

A friend came along side to walk with me through this. To gently prod and ask some questions I thought there were no answers to. Questions about feelings and what I had numbed were named. It made me feel weak and what’s a good Christian girl doing feeling weak? It made me feel raw and vulnerable and ashamed of not being able to “get over it”.

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“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.
(Matthew 5:14, The Message)”

I intruded on their weekly meeting. Again. But there they sit, in plain view as I walk past the dining room and I’m drawn to these two men. Externally, they are as different as can be. Short and tall, fair and dark. Add this blonde female to the mix and, yeah, we are those God-colors the bible talks about.

Mike and Dodd. I don’t know if Dodd is his first or last name which doesn’t matter because all I need to know is the light he shines brightly when he comes to share the message of recovery.

Mike, I know. He’s been in and out and in and out of our program and every time he’s been in he’s I’ve been drawn to his easy nature and we’ve hoped for his best seeing that something inside of him that we know is capable of more. And this time….yes, this time, Mike has taken fully hold of this light and has become, himself, a light bringing out the God-colors in our world.

I looked at the two of them yesterday and said, “I like hanging out with you two.” In our dining room on Wednesdays when they meet for their sponsor/sponsee time that I inevitably crash.

Thank you God, our loving parent who is the light inside us, a spark to share and set another light aflame. Thank you for letting us see and be part of the God-colors in our world. Help us see beyond the frame to how the colors spill out and over and can never be contained in what man has made. Let us light up the night so the darkness will be exposed and your way be made clear. 

Stumbling through another Father’s Day

Who ever knew these holidays, the ones to honor our mothers and fathers, could be the toughest of all. Hallmark doesn’t make a card for “The Dad Who Has Everything…..including a drug addiction and jail time.” Or, “Thank you mom, the best thing you could have done was put me in the foster home. I’ll always remember you for that.”

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Walking through the church doors the greeter would ask, red or white? The red carnation pinned to your lapel or dress (in the days when we wore ‘church clothes’) signified your mom was still living and the white, that she’d passed on. The moms would be asked to stand and little prizes given to the one with the most children with her in church that day. Sometimes the oldest would be recognized for her stalwart faith in raising generations.

Times changed and we don’t do that anymore. We try to be sensitive to the women who want nothing more than being a mom but can’t or are still waiting. So many reasons people can feel excluded so I suppose we just celebrate women and that’s good. Dads have never gotten the fanfare of mothers so maybe there’s not as much change there.

When we go through the calendar in our Rehabilitation Center, there are so many joys to share with these men throughout the year. Advent and the Lenten season are particularly special as some are new to the spiritual side of these holidays typically called Christmas and Easter. But I dread Mother’s and Father’s Day.

We stumble our way through these days, learning to follow their lead. They’ve seen our family, heard our stories of childhood and seen the pictures. We don’t hide our celebration of good but imperfect families and homes. They celebrate with us. And we hurt with those who ache from the dad who was never there or the mom who did put her sons in a foster home.

Before chapel, M, leaned over and told me his son had unfriended him on Facebook. This boy he loves and has been half way around the world to see, is hurt, angry, over his father’s relapse. M knows this. “It is what it is”, he says. And it’s the deepest kind of pain, I think.

A daughter messaged me asking if we’d heard from her dad. She was planning to visit him. Bring his grandson to see him for the first time. But his regular calls had stopped. Again.

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J gave the welcome and this 20-something young man celebrating over a year of sobriety told us he hadn’t had a good relationship with his dad. His dad is still in addiction. “But I’ve forgiven him and I’ll call him today and tell him I love him.”

Grace? Amazing grace!

And so another and another stood during our time of sharing and thanked a God who has brought them to this place of healing, of restoring families, and making all things new. My eyes water while my spirit soars knowing God is always a God of love and grace and healing. He will make all things new.